Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Every morning, when the sun comes up

I learned to drink it black out of fear.

I didn't care for coffee until I began to reject peanut butter. Adolescence. I went to sleep thinking PB&J was fine and woke up knowing that I was tired of sticky, oily and too sweet. I lost my taste for soft bread and popsicles and looked for the new and especially the forbidden. Surrounded by adult things, I wanted some. Surely you can remember foraging the remains of cocktail parties: chips, clam dip with olives and eau de Gilbey's. I loved those olives.

I was sixteen; everything was changing. I no longer knew where I belonged or even what I liked. I needed to go off by myself. If only I could simply put to sea, to live before the mast and learn manly things. Wait, I did exactly that! Conveniently, we lived near a seaport so I signed on to have my Ishmael moment. While at sea, I was forced to drink coffee every single day.

The family lived in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. I joined the Inland Boatman's Union and found a berth on the tug Charles. We pulled full barges up the protected inside passage to Alaska and empty ones south.

a different tow boat with barge

Sometimes we offloaded in Anchorage and sometimes in Whittier, one of the stranger places I've ever been. It was built as a military facility in 1943 (in case of something.) Basically a large dock facility, a railway spur and the largest building (abandoned) in Alaska. When a barge arrived, a crew of longshoreman would train across the isthmus from Anchorage, unload the barge and go back home.

My job was in the engine room, I remember it without even a trace of affection. I was a Wiper, the lowest conceivable position on a ship. My primary function was to ensure that the engines did not overheat. And explode. I never really knew how to do my job. It was explained once and involved adjusting seven valves in a very specific pattern. It was not written down. Furthermore, it was the first and last time that the engineer (my boss) addressed me directly.

inside passage

The engine room was a constant 120 degrees and a bit over 115 decibels. There were a lot of old Reader's Digests (bi-monthly editions.) To stall the impending explosion I would jump up from my reading or swabbing every few minutes and run from one engine to another, making random adjustments to the 14 wheels.

While on duty I was allowed up to the galley for coffee (the only option) and, because of the explosion thing, I was afraid to take the time to get sugar or milk, just the joe. Absolute and unvarnished (both the coffee and the truth.)

Since that summer my devotion (or enslavement) to coffee has settled in. I have learned what coffees, methods and cups I prefer. It has taken most of the past 52 years to get it right. The shipboard version was strong and both bitter and sour. Since my coffee consciousness began before the first Starbucks, it was all perked or boiled with egg shells and pepper. On special occasions, father would brew in an Italian moka.

Then, in 1966, I chased a girlfriend to Hamburg, where I got a job as a pearl-diver in the kitchen of the Hotel Europaeischer Hof. One kitchen for four restaurants and room service: many, many dishes. 3:00 PM to midnight, 6 days a week. The job included a room in a transient hotel and two meals a day (we were often served chicken necks with white sauce on white rice.)

While in Germany I moved to more serious coffee at stand-up tables. It was delivered in a heavy, silver-plate pitcher that held two full cups of rich, round flavored coffee. It seemed to me that I had actually not had real coffee until then.

I'm sure that it had much to do with libido and a manly, tough guy image. I liked being seen drinking this dark and rich brew without any feminine sweetness and cream.

Then, a dozen years later, I drank espresso in Rome and was reborn. Again, it was as if I had not had real coffee until that first moment. Those Roman shots remain my favorite coffee experience but I also happily drank church-basement coffee for decades. In Vietnam, we boiled water over burning C4 explosive, trying not to inhale the fumes. We dug it out of hand grenades and claymore mines (because it burned very hot) to heat rations and for my Sanka. It even burned in  the rain.

At this point in life, my coffee ritual is the way in which I ensure that the sun will rise (it has a retroactive effect since I like sleeping late.) I recommend the entire experience. It starts the day outwards, I have just spent hours floating inwards. It eliminates the grump and I approach the task with gratitude and focus. I know exactly how B likes her coffee and she has won me over so that my first cup now also gets a little sugar and milk.

The dog begins to wake me, she knows that walking and eating will only occur after that first cup. It can take a while but, when she's won, I go downstairs and she goes back to sleep. Sometimes the operating theater is prepared: water on the stove; cups, press pot, spoons and the coffee jar in place on the counter. If I'm really on my game, my pills and vitamins are laid out on the other counter.

An after dinner demitasse   (shot by Brigid Burns)


Having consumed the stuff for a long time uniquely qualifies me to tell you exactly how to make coffee for me
and B. Except for a wonderful Italian coffee, Lavazza Pienaroma, no single coffee  works for us. B prefers less caffeine and we start with a mix of two coffees. After I brew the first pot, I adjust the ratio and often add a third variety.

I do have a grinder that we use when I find a whole bean coffee on sale but I don't require my coffee fresh ground. I use nearly a cup of ground coffee in a one quart french press. I brew it very quickly. As soon as I've added the water I stir it thoroughly, press the plunger and fill the cups.

For the moment, we have an inexpensive espresso machine which I only use for the steam wand. I am pretty good with it.

And, now the world can turn..


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